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The White House on Friday defended its deportation policy after complaints from Democratic presidential candidates and congressional leaders that a sweep targeting Central American illegal immigrants is inhumane.

Reuters reported on Thursday that U.S. immigration officials plan a month-long series of raids in May and June to deport hundreds of Central American mothers and children found to have entered the country illegally.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that the deportation operations were consistent with President Barack Obama’s policy to focus on deporting criminals and recent immigrants who crossed the U.S. border illegally after Jan. 1, 2014.

“No one is removed if they have an ongoing, pending claim or appeal for asylum or some other form of humanitarian relief,” Earnest told reporters at a briefing.

“If this serves to discourage people from considering to make this journey, that would be a good thing,” Earnest said.

In 2014, a wave of children fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala surged across the U.S. border, inflaming the debate over how to deal with the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The planned new raids are in response to a renewed surge of illegal entries by Central American women traveling with their children.

In January, immigration officers rounded up 121 people, mostly women and children, in three states. That sparked criticism from Democrats running to replace Obama in the Nov. 8 presidential elections.

On Thursday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton reiterated her concerns about the new plans.

“I’m against large-scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities,” Clinton said.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders said he opposed “the painful and inhumane business of locking up and deporting families” trying to escape violence in other countries.

In Congress, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid called on Obama to reconsider the plans and focus on addressing the instability in Central America.

Democratic representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a critic of the Obama administration’s deportation policies, complained the administration was leaking word of the deportations to scare people away from coming to the United States.

“The last time they did this, people called my office about raids that were not existent because it creates panic, it creates fear, it’s terrible, it’s a terrible way to bring about policy on this issue,” Gutierrez told reporters.

“Stop talking about them as illegal immigrants. They are asylum seekers,” he said.
Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Richard Cowan; Editing by Chris Reese and Andrew Hay

Photo: Officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) are shown during an operation targeting criminal aliens and other immigration violators in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States in this image released May 11, 2016.   Courtesy ICE/Handout via REUTERS

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